October 17, 2007|Meeting long-time screenwriter Tony Gilroy at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston to talk about his hyphenate debut Michael Clayton, I first notice that his general appearance does a balancing act between "relaxed" and "unkempt" that typifies the kind of laid-back, distinguished-movie-star appeal he tried so hard to suppress in leading man George Clooney. Gilroy sports barely-noticeable stubble, an unbuttoned collar, and a head of hair several shades greyer than it appears in Michael Clayton's production stills. A silly, perfunctory rumination on the reversal of traditional filmmaking roles (in this case ending with the handsome, top-billed actor re-imagined as a droopy sadsack) in turn reminds me of my own lukewarm reaction to Gilroy's freshman feature, which goes over much of the same ground covered in the Bourne films--a series of tough, bitter pills that coalesce to form an utterly devastating trilogy. Caught with tough-act-to-follow comparisons, Michael Clayton brings similar ideas of identity crisis and the discovery of the bastard within to a genre that has unfortunately bled such veins dry.
It is, however, not entirely without interest, and if the film fails to properly utilize the strengths of Gilroy the screenwriter, one should at least credit Gilroy the director for his aforementioned sense of careful consideration--something that can be immediately felt when chatting with the man in person. He speaks his mind in a somewhat fragmented manner that doesn't imply ineloquence so much as a desire to put his thoughts into precisely the right words--a trait that makes me feel comfortable in asking broad questions about the issues common to both Michael Clayton and the Bourne saga. Throughout our dialogue, he denies having any master blueprints in doling out grand metaphors or theses, yet his willingness to dive into popular interpretations of his work suggests that his initial reluctance is an attempt to avoid the potential artistic suffocation of being labelled an auteur. I don't really buy into Michael Clayton's iteration of lost-soul-searching and morality ground through the corporate gears, but despite being a self-professed believer in entropy, Gilroy exhibits a warts-and-all faith in humanity and a genuine excitement for filmmaking that shine through in his work and presence. Frankly, I can't wait to see what he has to offer next.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I was wondering if you had heard that a pro-life website had used the Bourne trilogy as a pretext for a pro-life agenda.
TONY GILROY: Never heard of that. In what way? They used the metaphor of the film?
Well, each of the three films apparently represents a trimester.
Wow, fascinating... I'd seen a very interesting Christian interpretation of Supremacy, but no, I haven't seen that.
How do you respond to those kinds of specific interpretations of your work?
I actually really like it. I think that if something has a classic structure, and it has classic themes--I don't really write with a grand plan, but intuitively, instinctively, you're drawn to certain things that are rich in storytelling, and those things spread out in really interesting directions for all kinds of myths. Y'know, what are the religions based on? It's all part of the same storytelling foundations. So I think it's always interesting... Devil's Advocate had reams of essays and commentary on both sides of what that film was about, and what it signified.
You seem to be interested in people who find their conscience when they realize that they themselves are responsible for becoming tools of the system.
The converse being that they find out that they're their own villain. People have been [trying] to find a link between Bourne and this film, and all this external paranoia, and, "What's your fascination with external paranoia?" And I say, Well, it's not that at all. I'm not fascinated with that, I'm fascinated with the villain that's inside these people. That's just an echo--that's the place that it fits best for them to have this dilemma. But, y'know, in truth, Devil's Advocate, same thing. It was a script that was around for many years, and Taylor [Hackford] got involved, and...I read it, and said, "I don't want anything to do with this!" And he said, "Ah, but you should do it." I said, "I'll come out and work for a week, if I can leave at the end of the week." [W]hile I was there, at the end I said, "What if you make it internal? What if you make it so that he's the father?" So that's the most naked version of it I've ever done. I don't really know what that says about me, but obviously I'm interested in that problem inside.
How does Cold War paranoia translate into post-9/11 paranoia?
For me, they're delineated because, one I experienced as a child, and the other one I experienced as a parent. So all my feelings about the Cold War, and I really grew up--I'm 50, so I saw the end of the filmstrips, and Duck and Cover, and people building bomb shelters in Los Angeles. So for me, it's experience as a child, with a child's imagination, and I'm sure--I mean, that's a really fundamentally interesting question. Probably any fundamental paranoia I have is as a child, whereas 9/11, I deal with entirely as a parent. I have two children, I lived in New York...and it's very much about a very different, visceral experience. I'm not sure if I can filter them out in a more primary way than that.
So you can't see that through the eyes of a child.
No, it's really hard to... It's not pulling rank, or anything, it's just different. I was never afraid to fly until I had children... It's different; you're protecting something.
And that plays into the progression of trust of authority into the eventual distrust of authority.
I'll tell you, though, my worldview is consistent about how things work. I have a great deal of difficulty believing in the competency of human conspiracy. I really believe in failure, I believe that human behaviour leaks through any system that it's ever been imposed on. You take any system you want, you put it on top of people, it can be Marx, it can be Nazism, and whatever you want to [use]--finally in the end, the human behaviour, the human instincts, the human needs, the human desires, and the human weaknesses and failings leak through that system and corrode it. It's the fundamental human way. That runs all the way through the Cold War to now. I don't believe Al-Qaeda's any more competent than I think that the Politburo was. I don't think that the CIA is any more competent than they ever were. I think it's all...people in a room. That's what Michael Clayton is so much about: this is how it works, this is how it works and how it doesn't work. Here's two people in a room, and two people here in a room, and here's a bad decision that gets made, and someone's weak.
Michael Clayton and the Bourne films certainly share a common point in the attempt to erase human failure.
Well, it's certainly true in Bourne: "You're a high functioning piece of machinery, we paid all this money, you're not supposed to"--you know, they don't do this, they don't fail. Can you get that free will--can you eliminate that? Free will isn't just a gift, it's a real curse, too. So, yeah, I mean... I never start from a big place. I always start microscopic. "Oh, here's this guy, and this is really interesting--here's this guy, and he's a fixer, what would that be like, and what would he fix?" Gradually, what you think, hopefully, leaks out and what you believe, hopefully, is a background noise in some form to what you're writing about, but it's really about the characters. Maybe there are people who do, [but] I don't know how you'd write from the outside in. I have to really get inside and crawl out.
I had read that Doug Liman requested that you not read The Bourne Identity before you wrote the script. Is that right?
No, that's not correct. Doug had a script that was based on Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity, and it was just a godawful script that I had no interest in being involved with. But, no, I didn't read it because I'd read the script, and there had been a writer who'd very valiantly tried to follow a very complicated, dated book. So, no, that is not true.
Okay. Like I said, I had just read that. IMDb isn't always the most trustworthy source.
No, IMDb is really pissing me off these days. You try to get them to post things that [are] true and accurate, and...they post [things that are] wrong, or--anyway, I don't wanna get into that. It's tricky territory, [but] I think IMDb has turned into a utility in a way, and it's something that everybody in the movie business [uses] and it has a responsibility that really... It can't be Wikipedia. It can't be. It's too valuable. If you're making a movie, you're on it twenty times a day! I don't know how we'd live without it.
It sort of leads into a discussion about the perception and manipulation of reality. In The Bourne Ultimatum, for example, you've got the government taking aim at reporters. How does that all relate to the extension of homeland security?
Listen, man, it's a very interesting transitional moment right now. Things happen so fast. I'm not sure whether human beings will ever be equipped, the speed that information is presented to you, and taken from you, the speed and the vastness of that, I'm not sure that--I mean, you're only how many generations away from hunting bugs in the woods? Things are happening so quickly, on such a huge scale, and it's being run by people, who are not perfect. Who will never, ever be perfect. I think it's all very--it's a very shaky time right now. There's a lot of stuff that's really in transition, a lot of stuff that's really up for grabs. I'm not a cultural theologian in any way, but there are so many things that are in play right now that are fundamental. I think it's very fair to be very paranoid about a lot of things right now.
Is there anything that we can do beyond being paranoid?
(long pause) Boy, that's a really huge question. I think that people can vote. That might help. As stupid as that sounds, we have to have people that are involved, and you have to have an audience that's involved. But as I said before, the speed that things are happening, so many things--news stories fly by that are so huge, and they're almost like in your rear-view mirror, you're going eighty miles an hour, and you're sort of looking at a crash behind you, and going, "My God," and there's another one coming at you. I mean, how many administrations would have been sunk by Abu Ghraib? I mean, pick your poison. I don't know--I think speed, and the fragmentation of information is not something that we're not quite ready to handle yet.
Your characters--Michael Clayton, Jason Bourne... You mention the discovery of the villain inside--they try to make amends for that. Do you think that those amends come too late?
Do I think they came too late? I think, there's nothing sadder--there's nothing sadder--than "too late." I don't think, narratively, I don't think there's anything in life... The fact that you're going to be executed tomorrow morning is not as sad as you never [telling] your son you loved him. It's too late. When it's too late, it's the most heartbreaking thing of all. I'm sorry, but you can't get there from here, and you missed it. Flirting with "you missed it," and certainly flirting with it very much in Michael Clayton--because, traditionally, your hero goes down the road, and then at some point in the third act, they see the sign for redemption and they pull over. This is not that movie. This is a character who has driven past that point before the movie even started. Bourne is a much more available character, in a way, because it just started with Matt wanting to be good. That was the first conversation that I ever had with Doug when I got involved, I said, "I don't understand what this book is about," but I said, it is really interesting if someone had amnesia--if I didn't know who I was or where I was--what's interesting to me is that I would only be able to identify myself by what I knew how to do. I mean, do I know how to make a croissant, do I know how to diaper a baby, do I know how to make a cappuccino? And what if the things that I learned--I knew how to do--turned out to be things that were really...bad. That's a movie to me, that's really small, that's something that's really interesting. That's really intimate, and that's really compelling. So Jason Bourne starts off--and I'm really curious to see this right-to-life thing, because, you know, he starts off in the water, naked, "Who am I?" And there's no "who am I" in Michael Clayton. Michael Clayton, when you meet him, he's fully scuffed-up, and already launched on a road that well past redemption.
Something that extends into the film's final shot.
I think that there are many reasons to have that final shot--not the least of which was simply because it was good cinema... A bunch of reasons. But one of the reasons was, there's a really upbeat, kind of really crowdpleasing thing that happens, and I sorta didn't want to finish on that, in a way. But I also wanted people to think about what would happen--what's gonna happen--to him in the next week, and six weeks. And what's gonna happen to all of the people in the film in the next six months. If you just have a moment to think about what's gonna happen to all of these people, it's not hard to figure out what's gonna happen--just enough of a rest to think about that. Because he pays a pretty high price for what redemption he gets.
Do you think that we're at a point of no return now?
No, you can't believe that. I don't think you can live and believe that. I mean, I can't believe that. The point of no return? No. I think that, human beings--you're hardwired to be optimistic. Not optimistic, but you're hardwired to continue. You're the end result of an infinite number of forward-moving, positive forces [that] have led us to be here--we're the apotheosis of all these amazing, miraculous algorithms of things that have happened along the way, since God knows when. I think America has a kind of self-delusion about its reinvention of itself--that's not a new idea, a lot of people have spent a lot of time articulating that better than I ever will. I think somewhere in the middle the truth lies. You can't keep walking around saying, "Well, we can fix this, and we can clean this up," but you can't ever believe that it's beyond hope.
Certainly. But at this point, what can self-realization reclaim?
You know what? In the end, you're also responsible for how you live your life, and how you live with the people that are around you. It's so stupid, it's simple, but it really is--I mean, how do you take care of your life, how do you live your life with the people that are around you? How do you care about your children? How do you take care of the people that matter to you? Are you a good neighbour? Are you a good citizen? Those are the things that you can do something about. I mean, if you, you know, clean up after yourself--those simple, stupid things. I don't know how else to live, that's how you try to get through the day. But you're asking some deep, philosophical questions. I mean this is really fundamentally tough stuff--but that's good. I'm glad that the movie can sustain these kinds of questions.
Speaking of foregone conclusions, one thing that really interested me about Michael Clayton is how you play with chronology and end up orchestrating a car chase as if we don't already know how it will end.
I had a couple of things going. One is that, I still plug in. It's the psychology of being in the audience...and you plug in, so there's a manipulative aspect to it. There's also the need to satisfy the questions about how and what was going on the first time, and there's also--it also runs past what you've seen before, so there's a question mark the first time around. So there is some "what is going to happen?" after that, [so] you have some energy from a narrative point of view, some gravitational pull to pull the story through there. But more importantly, you get to be with this character--you get to be with Michael Clayton almost with a visual voiceover, in a way... You get to see him, and really understand what he's been through. The culmination of it is silence. That was a really big breakthrough when we were doing the score, trying to do the spotting, and trying to figure what to do, and working with a temp score. "Let's have it peak, and then"--traditionally you'd go the other way, you'd have it keep going. [But] we kill the music, we go to silence at the exact moment when you'd expect to go more. I'm happy with it, and it's interesting how people plug in, even when they know what's gonna happen. I mean, it's not a whodunit. I never spend much time talking about the bad chemical. Those things are on the table--it's how it's done, and why, and what the cost is.